Published in Travel Sri Lanka magazine, May 2004.
By Laurie Ashton
Shortly after arriving in Sri Lanka from Canada, my husband and I need to go shopping for household items to set up a new household. We walk from our house to the main road along side streets that remind me of North American back alleys, but smaller and not as well maintained. Waste water from kitchen sinks, showers, and clothes washers run through pipes to the concrete ditches lining either side of the street. It’s rained, so we bypass orange puddles on the road as we wind our way through these side streets to the main road where we hire a trishaw, also known as a tuk-tuk or a three wheeler. Houses we pass along the way have bushes or trees in full bloom with a riot of colors – peach, purple, red, pink, and orange. Mix in the coconut, pineapple, mango, papaya, and lime trees in backyards, and I’m happy to be living in tropical Sri Lanka.
We reach the trishaw stand where there are four or five trishaws all waiting for a hire. Fahim talks to the driver in Sinhalese to negotiate a rate, and after doing a few side head bobs with a lot of smiling, we hop in.
A trishaw has one wheel in front, two in back, and it’s small – about three feet wide and maybe five feet long. There’s one seat in the front for the driver and a bench seat for passengers in the back along with some space behind the seat for purchases. Trishaws are covered on top and in the back, but the sides are open with nylon covering that can roll down and fasten shut during a heavy rain. They’re small and highly maneuverable, which helps in heavy traffic with very flexible driving rules.
The driver pulls on his starter on the floor beside him, the engine roars to life, and we’re off.
There’s a much wider variety of vehicles sharing the road than I’m used to – everything from cars, trucks, vans, bicycles, buses, and motorcycles, to hand-drawn carts, bullock carts, and tractors. Some are brand new and in spotless condition. Others look fifty years old with wheels wobbling to and fro and spewing black smelly smoke I can taste from fifty paces.
Everyone here honks these short taps on the horn. A lot. But unlike North American honking, it’s not done out of anger. It’s a signal – “I’m here, don’t go,” or “I’m trying to pass you, please move over.”
Where there are two marked lanes for each direction, vehicles will move down the road three or five wide in each direction, treating the lane markers as mere suggestions, if that. Drivers will pass a vehicle, whether using their lane or one for oncoming traffic, then they’ll swing over, assuming the car they’ve just passed will get out of his way. The car behind, knowing full well that everyone in Sri Lanka drives this way, either slows down or moves over. As a passenger, several times I think we’re going to mow down a pedestrian, but we miss him by inches. I’m the only one going, “Look out!” Everyone else says, “Huh? For what?”
Most intersections, except those in downtown Colombo, don’t have traffic lights, and I haven’t yet seen a stop sign or yield sign. Our trishaw driver, like most, pushes his way into traffic, especially when turning against traffic.
It’s entertaining and a little nerve wracking, a chaotic fluidic dance of vehicles breaking every known motoring law familiar in North America with pedestrians tossed in for good flavor. Yet, even with all the seeming chaos, there are far fewer accidents here than I would have expected.
As we’re riding in the trishaw, I notice storefront signs which are a mix of Sinhalese, English, and sometimes Tamil. Lankan English, like its driving habits, is regarded with a great deal of flexibility. Spelling, punctuation, and grammar as North Americans, Brits, Aussies, or anyone else who calls English the mother tongue, is greatly ignored. All that anyone cares about here is whether or not they got the point across. Pestry for pastry. Persenal for personal. My personal favorite? Chainees Restaurant. I think they mean Chinese.
My husband told our trishaw driver we wanted pots and pans cheaper than what we would pay at the department store, so the driver takes us to what could be loosely called a shop in North America.
Here, if you want something, it’s common to tell the three-wheel driver what you want, and he’ll take you somewhere. Sometimes, he gets a cut from the shop owner, sometimes he doesn’t.
This shop is about five or six feet wide, perhaps ten or twelve feet deep that I can see. On the floor and the walls, every single surface is crammed with goods for sale. As we describe what we want, the shop owner or employees shift contents here and there as they drag out what we’re looking for. Conversation starts in English but quickly switches to Sinhalese with my husband translating – when he remembers – for me. The prices are very good compared to what I’d pay in Canada, but are they good prices locally? I have no idea. My husband tells me that, because I’m a pasty-white foreigner, they’ll automatically give a higher price than they would to obvious locals. We pick out one of these, two of these, several of these, and pretty soon, we have pots, dishes, and silverware.
Next we need to buy a mattress. We walk into the store, and I can’t see anything it’s so dark. Eventually my eyes adjust and it’s not that the store is that dark, it’s just that outside is that bright.
There are two levels of mattresses stacked side by side with narrow little walkways between. Mattresses here are not like what you get in North America – most mattresses don’t have springs, quilted covers, coils, or pillow tops. They’re a few inches of foam rubber encased in a zippered cloth cover, and they’re measured by the foot. We pick out our mattress and sit down at a desk in the middle of the store with the saleslady, who asks if I’m from Japan. I try not to burst out laughing – Japanese is not something I thought I’d ever be mistaken for. I’m far too pink and obviously of European ancestry.
One of the staff members ties the mattress to the top of the trishaw with the help of the driver, and I’m concerned that it’s going to blow off on the ride home. Part way there, the driver says something to my husband in Sinhalese, and he grabs the mattress from his side of the trishaw. Keep in mind that the mattress is a foot or two wider than the trishaw, and you can imagine the strange sight it must be. And yet no one stares.
It’s been a very big day, and I’m a more than just a little culture shocked. My husband warned me of everything he could think of before I came over, but to get the full flavor, you really have to experience it for yourself. Living in Sri Lanka so far is wildly different from what I’m used to, and I’m loving it here.